2001: A Space Odyssey
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Perils of Technology
2001: A Space Odyssey explores technological innovation, its possibilities and its perils. Two particular dangers of technology are explored in great detail. First, Hal presents the problems that can arise when man creates machines, whose inner workings he does not fully understand. Second, the book explores the dangers associated with the nuclear age. The novel issues a warning against the destructive power associated with that technological innovation in the military arena.
2001 takes a long-term view of development, human and otherwise. The story traces the development of man from man-ape. Uniquely, 2001 considers not only the evolution that has led to the development of man, but also the evolution that man might undergo in the future. Thus, we follow Bowman as he is turned into a star-child by the advanced civilization of extra- terrestrial intelligence. The novel recognizes that evolutionary theory implies that humanity is not the final goal of some process, but only a stopping point on an undirected process. One way this process might continue, the book imagines, is that humans will learn to rid themselves of their biological trappings.
When 2001: A Space Odyssey was written, Man had not yet even set foot on the moon. The space exploration programs in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were well underway, but the technology was only in its early stages. Much room was left to imagine the future of the space program. 2001 offers one such imagination, offering a glimpse at what space exploration might one day be. Lengthy journeys, such as manned flights to Saturn, and advanced technologies, such as induced human hibernation, are created and brought to life throughout the story.
As Hal begins to malfunction, his action becomes less predictable and a lot more human. At first, this involves something relatively minor—reporting a part to be malfunctioning when it is, in fact, working fine. It is intriguing that Hal's malfunction causes him to incorrectly say that other things have malfunctioned. Hal's breaking down occurs against the backdrop of an otherwise immaculately crafted mission—this makes his malfunction stand out even more. This malfunction serves to warn against the perils of technology over which we do not have full control.
The Accouterments of Space Travel
Like any good science fiction novel, 2001 provides a detailed look at the scientific world it chronicles. Great care is taken to ensure that the reader gets a sense of the experience of the technology described in the book. Dr. Floyd's journey to Space Shuttle One is described with attention to details such as the experience of a high-acceleration liftoff, the adhesive sauces used to keep chops firmly in place on one's plate, and even the rotating bathroom that allows for the effect of gravity on the spaceship.
The narrator of this book is omniscient—we see into everyone's head, are told their innermost thoughts and motivations. Events occurring millions of years apart and, even before humans existed, are reported to us in immaculate detail. This narration plays a key role in providing the varied and non-linear plot that composes the story of 2001. Without an omniscient narrator, it would seem quite difficult, for instance, to tell the tale of part one, in which moon watcher encounters the slab, or to fully reveal the inner psychology of Hal.
Hal 2001, the eerily human-like computer aboard the Discovery space ship, represents technological advancement. It is symbolic of many long-held concerns about technology. First, Hal is artificially intelligent. It can think as well as, if not better than, any human. Second, its inner workings are not completely understood by his creators. With Hal, people have created a very powerful technology that they cannot fully control. When Hal begins to think on its own and deviate from the way in which it has been instructed, this is an expression of the fear many people held that our own technological advancement would come back to haunt us unexpected and unforeseen ways.
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